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MH17 crisis a wake-up call to Europe over sanctions, says Obama

Wreckage of MH17 near the town of Shaktarsk, in rebel-held east Ukraine.
Dominique Faget | AFP | Getty Images
Wreckage of MH17 near the town of Shaktarsk, in rebel-held east Ukraine.

The downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 threatens to escalate a tense, months-long stand-off between the west and Russia over Ukraine to dangerous new levels.

As Moscow and Kiev traded accusations about who was responsible, the US pointed the finger squarely at Russian-backed separatists in east Ukraine for firing the missile that destroyed the plane.

The incident is galvanizing opinion in the EU, which has so far lagged behind the US in its willingness to impose tough economic sanctions on Russia. In the wake of the disaster, more hawkish European capitals launched a fresh push for quicker and broader new measures.

Read MoreWhy was Malaysia Airlines MH17 flying over Ukraine?

Asked about possible further sanctions, US President Barack Obama said on Friday the crash was "a wake-up call for Europe and the world that there are consequences to an escalating conflict in eastern Ukraine".

Moscow could end up facing more concerted western pressure to end its support for the eastern rebels. In the meantime, the disaster has changed – if temporarily – one of the prevailing dynamics of the Ukraine crisis: a Russian leader who has until now called most of the shots and succeeded at dividing western governments with ease suddenly appeared on the back foot.

"The context for yesterday's horror is clear: separatist forces – backed by the Russian government – continue to destabilize Ukraine and undermine the efforts of Ukraine's elected leaders to build a democratic Ukraine," Samantha Power, US ambassador to the UN, told an emergency session of the Security Council. "If President Putin continues to choose escalation over de-escalation, the international community will continue to impose costs on Russia."

With some legal experts suggesting the plane's downing could be classed as a war crime, Russia – and President Vladimir Putin – risked becoming a pariah.

Others speculated, more hopefully, that the tragedy could shock Russia and the international community into diplomatic action to find a way to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, said there was "no alternative to a political and diplomatic solution to the crisis" – although she admitted this would be a "difficult path".

But analysts warned that if further proof emerges linking the separatists to the disaster, Mr Putin stands to face severe international opprobrium.

"Russia is likely to face a major political and media campaign reminiscent of the 1983 shooting of the Korean Air Lines airliner . . . which ushered in the most dangerous period of the Cold War after the Cuban missile crisis," wrote Dmitry Trenin, head of the Moscow Carnegie Center, an arm of the US think-tank.

Moscow was treading cautiously on Friday. Mr Putin and foreign minister Sergei Lavrov pointedly refrained from saying outright that the rebels had not shot down the aircraft.

Read More'Unbelievable andunfair': Grief flows for those on MH17

They said only that Ukraine was "responsible", because the disaster would not have happened if Kiev had not ended a ceasefire with the eastern insurgents. Foreign diplomats in Moscow said their Russian counterparts were using the same argument.

Russia also insisted it would not demand to lead the crash investigation. Vitaly Churkin, its ambassador to the UN, called for an international commission to be set up under the UN International Civil Aviation Organization. It resisted calls from the rebels for the plane's black box recorders to be brought to Moscow.

One senior Russian foreign ministry official said that, if handled well, joint efforts to investigate the crash fairly could present a new opportunity for a political solution to the Ukrainian conflict. But, he added, this depended on a "more flexible attitude" from Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko "which we're not seeing so far".

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A source with knowledge of Russian government discussions said the attack had narrowed Moscow's room for manoeuver over Ukraine.

"Following the US sanctions, they were going to focus on rallying the country around the government – the message was to focus on keeping the economy afloat despite all this external pressure, and for that you would have needed quite a bit of patriotic, anti-western rhetoric," he said. "But this awful incident is going to strengthen those in the west who want to punish Russia further, so now Putin needs to demonstrate at least some kind of co-operative stance."

The foreign ministry official conceded Moscow would "need to be very watchful for our relations with Europe".

Read MoreMerkel talks tough, but can Europe back it up?

European diplomats said there had already been a push at a meeting of EU ambassadors on Thursday evening to speed up agreement on a new list of targets for "enhanced" sanctions. More hardline EU members were expected to press their case at a foreign ministers' meeting on Tuesday.

"It can only accelerate the European move towards sanctions against Russia," said a diplomat from a central European country.

Meanwhile, calls continued in the US for Washington to stiffen European resolve. "With almost everything we know right now, you have to say that Putin is largely responsible," said Peter King, Congressman from New York.

"I think it's important for the president to step up today and mobilise western support [for] economic sanctions, severe economic sanctions. And the fact that so many Europeans have been killed, again, may give them more impetus to get involved."

Additional reporting by Geoff Dyer in Washington and Stefan Wagstyl in Berlin